Oh, baby, we finally got a new farm bill

This baby has been a long time coming. But the more than two-year gestation period for the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act finally produced a healthy, though not perfect, progeny.

It's legislation that has seen both bi-partisan bickering and cross-party cooperation, and legislators from both sides of the aisle have criticized and praised the efforts. At any one time during the lengthy process observers have been hard put to determine who was dragging their feet and who was racing to meet a deadline that puts the legislation in place for the 2002 crop-year. Republican and Democrat members alternately accused each other of impeding the process and trying to rush it through without proper debate and scrutiny.

Southwest Farm Press covered the first House Agriculture Committee hearing in Lubbock more than two years ago, and we've since watched this drama play out like a television soap opera. At one time no one expected to see a farm bill debate in both houses before late 2002. But a late summer push by the House of Representatives, spurred by House Agriculture Committee leaders Larry Combest, R-Texas, chairman, and Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, ranking member, put pressure on the U.S. Senate to act.

Consequently, some predicted new farm legislation before Christmas, 2001. Didn't happen. September 11 likely slowed the process, as did mounting criticism from environmental groups, liberal and conservative legislators, and the media. The Environmental Working Group, an alleged not-for-profit organization, pushed hard to lower payment limitations and attracted considerable media attention with website publication of farm payment recipients.

No farm bill under anyone's Christmas tree. And nothing for New Year's, Valentines Day or Saint Patrick's Day either. No new law in Easter baskets, but by May Day, the final push had begun and the House-Senate conference committee delivered a proposal to their respective chambers, which the House passed quickly and the Senate put off for another few days to permit at least 12 more hours of bickering.

No sooner was the offspring delivered than folks began to comment shamelessly on how ugly it was. No redheaded stepchild was ever so sorely abused. Rude comments included:

Shockingly awful farm bill that will weaken the nation's finances.

  • This terrible farm bill.
  • Display of greed.
  • Enormous and unproductive subsidies.
  • Farm handouts.
  • Send (it) … back.

Ag family members, however, agree that, even though not the finest example of legislative pulchritude, it looks pretty good, and considerably more appealing than the last one Congress delivered.

Whatever warts detract from the perfection of this legislation — and the devil, as they say, will be in the details hammered out by USDA — it comes none too soon for U.S. farmers, many of whom have already planted on the assumption that something would issue from Congress before harvest, if not in time for planting season. Some bankers have inched out on shaky limbs to finance farmers without knowing what kind of safety net they could count on if disaster hits again. Now, they'll sleep a bit better.

It's been a miserable winter and early spring for many in rural America as they watched farm prices erode, costs rise, and profit prospects peter out. They've endured harsh and unjust criticism from radical environmentalists, media and some legislators who have no understanding of and no appreciation for the stresses a modern farmer suffers to stay in business and supply the food his critics eat and the clothes they wear.

Some have given up, cashed out what they could, and left the farm.

But most hung on and will see this crop through, hoping that the latest farm legislation will serve as a catalyst to energize the agricultural economy and bring some continuity to the farm sector. Delivery was long and painful; perhaps the next few years will bring healthy growth and prosperity.

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